Throughout the year, Outthinker Networks convenes with our members – all heads of strategy, innovation, and transformation at leading organizations – and thought leaders to stay on top of the trends and topics most likely to impact their companies. During group roundtables, peer coaching sessions, and one-on-one conversations, we are privy to the strategic challenges that are top of mind for today’s heads of strategy. From those discussions, we’ve created the Outthinker’s Guide to 2024, a list of the 10 trends shaping corporate strategy.
From our 2023 agenda, trends such as planning for uncertainty, future of work, and fourth industrial revolution technologies continue to grow in significance. Others like inflation and metaverse have cooled off for now. Conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and sustainability increased in complexity.
Chief strategy officers hold the critical role in guiding their organizations through present circumstances, while keeping an eye on disruption, opportunity, and transformation on the horizon. Among their varied functions, many strategy officers act as key advisors to the CEO, influencing decisions related to investments, talent, innovation, and environmental, social, and governance (ESG).
These are the strategy and innovation trends business leaders should be watching in 2024:
- Planning Under Extended Uncertainty
- Moving Beyond Hierarchies to Permissionless Corporations
- Innovating through Rapid Experimentation
- Focusing on Employee Experience to Improve Customer Experience
- Managing Generational Differences and the Future of Work
- Delivering Proximity through Fourth Industrial Revolution Technologies
- Integrating AI Everywhere
- Driving Inorganic Growth through Corporate Venture and M&A
- Confronting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Challenges
- Evolving the Role of the Strategy Officer
1. Planning Under Extended Uncertainty
2024 will not see a “return to normal” from previous years. Over 50 countries will hold high-stakes elections. COVID cases are rising around the globe. Local instability threatens systems and supply chains. Strategic leaders must adopt adaptable approaches to strategy that embrace uncertainty and enable rapid responses to unexpected events.
In December’s Outthinker Strategy Network roundtable with Nick Allan, CEO of Control Risks, a global risk consultancy, he foreshadowed that the risk of supply chain disruption will continue, exacerbated by protectionism and local unrest.
“Organizations must manage risk by accepting it, diving into their exposure across geographies, envisioning possible futures, and testing resilience,” he advised.
2. Moving Beyond Hierarchies to Permissionless Corporations
Rigid hierarchies slow companies down and often prevent the agility needed for the first trend. Forward-looking organizations are pioneering team-based structures where authority and autonomy are extended out to the edges of the company. China’s Haier provides an influential model with its RenDanHeYi system.
In 2023, Rita McGrath and Ram Charan defined the outlines of the permissionless corporation: “AI and other software make information transparent to all authorized decision-makers on the front lines, directly and without managerial filters. It unleashes their creative and collaborative potential instead of trapping them in endless reporting and coordination loops.”
3. Innovating through Rapid Experimentation
Members of our Outthinker Intrapreneurs Network know that truly innovative organizations can’t wait for proof that creative ideas will work before deciding to try them. Innovation can’t be relegated to an isolated department; it must be infused into the organizational mindset and culture. Intrapreneurial leaders are promoting a test-and-learn ethos where teams quickly launch experiments, collect learnings, and celebrate what works across the company.
Tony O’Driscoll, member of the Outthinker Thought Leader Advisory Board and professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, reminded us of the term try-storming: A twist on brainstorming, “it’s in the doing that you find out what works.”
4. Focusing on Employee Experience to Improve Customer Experience
Most companies have invested heavily in using technology to improve their customer journey and create a seamless user experience. On the other hand, the employee experience is often an afterthought. Each “seamlessly” integrated user interaction requires an employee bearing the burden of connecting applications behind the scenes.
Positive employee experiences translate into better customer experience. According to Tiffani Bova, growth strategist, executive advisor, keynote speakar, Wall Street Journal bestselling author, Thinkers50 3X top-rated management thinker, and What’s Next Podcast host, leading companies are creating KPIs for employee experience corresponding to customer experience and surveying employees to remove points of friction.
5. Managing Generational Differences and the Future of Work
With five generations in the workforce – Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z – organizations are reassessing employee preferences around flexibility, career paths, automation, and inclusive workplaces. Customization and personalization abound in consumer approaches, but organizations have been sluggish to apply similar perspectives to their employees.
Outthinker Networks’ strategists are curious and accepting of the unique characteristics between generations, particularly Gen Alpha, digital natives with multiple screens and primarily online friendships.
On the Outthinkers Podcast, Dr. Elizabeth Altman, associate professor of management at the Manning School of Business and guest editor of the MIT Sloan Management Review Future of the Workforce Project, explained the shifting nature of the workforce. Strategy leaders need to think more holistically about a workforce that includes not just full-time employees, but contingent workers and even AI assistants.
6. Delivering Proximity through Fourth Industrial Revolution Technologies
We’ve been tracking a trend called proximity in recent years, and in 2024, the concept moves to the forefront. Proximity, the future of all industries, as a business term was introduced by Rob Wolcott and refers to the production and provision of products and services moving ever closer to the moment of demand in time and space.
Generative AI, BrainGPT, renewable energy, and lab-grown meats are all examples. Enabled by technologies such as AI, 3D printing, virtual reality, Internet of Things (IoT), self-driving cars, and 5G (soon 6G) connectivity, proximity is transforming nearly all aspects of our lives.
7. Integrating AI Everywhere
The emergence of AI-enabled technologies and their adoption continues to accelerate. Leading organizations are leveraging AI to optimize processes, empower employees, and introduce new business models. CSOs are driving AI strategies and advising their organizations on the ethical applications of algorithms. Outthinker Strategy Network members are exploring the use of AI strategy development, governance, management, and execution.
8. Driving Inorganic Growth through Corporate Venture and M&A
PwC’s 26th annual Global CEO Survey found that 40% of CEOs believe their organizations will not be economically viable within a decade on their current trajectories. 2023 was a slow year for mergers and acquisitions, but things picked up in Q4 and are expected to continue to improve.
Outthinker Strategy Network members met with Linda Yates, founder and CEO of Mach49, growth incubator for global businesses, who advised companies considering new ventures to explore building, partnering, or acquiring options. Venture-driven growth is crucial for large companies to compete with startups effectively. And accelerating new ventures through different phases – validation, automation, and growth – is critical for success.
9. Confronting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Challenges
A new survey from employment law firm Littler shows that most companies have increased DEI efforts or maintained commitments in 2023, despite the Supreme Court decision against affirmative action in education. Some Outthinker Networks member companies report confronting backlash and distracting opposition to diversity policies.
Outthinker Networks will always remain a strong proponent of DEI policies. Stay tuned for our first chief strategy officer podcast episode highlighting the steps that two CSO members took to diversify their hiring pipeline for strategy leadership.
10. Evolving the Role of the Strategy Officer
When the overall macroeconomic environment is down, companies tend to slow down or stop extraneous initiatives outside the core. This impacts the strategy office as companies shift to focus on short-term operations and cost-cutting. But high-performing companies will always need strategists. The best companies will double down on strategic initiatives during a downturn, and they will jump ahead when the economy rebounds.
Outthinker Networks members met with Chad Oakley, CEO of Charles Aris Executive Search firm (with a dedicated strategy search team and a strategy newsletter). He advised CSOs to take on projects that add short-term value (think next 6 to 12 months) and quantifiable results. Many high-performing Outthinker Networks CSOs have taken on functions like corporate development, transformation, communications, human capital, employee experience, financial planning and analysis, big data, or leading strategic advisory around technologies like AI.
Outthinker Networks is a global peer group of senior strategy, innovation, and transformation executives. Members engage in curated learning, practical conversations, and 1:1 networking. opportunities to be more successful in performing their roles, solving their top challenges, and keeping their organizations ahead of the pace of disruption.